First Photos of Pluto's Surface Reveal Huge Water Ice Mountains

Thursday, 16 July 2015 - 10:24AM
NASA
Astronomy
Space Imagery
Thursday, 16 July 2015 - 10:24AM
First Photos of Pluto's Surface Reveal Huge Water Ice Mountains
The U.S. gave out a collective cheer on Tuesday when New Horizons completed its nine-year, three billion-mile mission to fly by Pluto within 8000 miles of its surface. After almost a full day of waiting, the probe finally phoned home on Tuesday night and started sending back amazing close-up photos of the heretofore mysterious planet. 



Now, we finally have the first detailed photograph of Pluto's surface, and it's much more beautiful and varied than we thought. NASA zoomed in on that idiosyncratic heart-shaped feature of the planet, and saw large areas of smooth terrain, some rougher geological features, and huge mountains.




The mountains are the most significant discovery thus far, not least because they reach the unexpected height of 11,000 feet at their peak. "They would stand up respectably against the Rocky Mountains," New Horizons planetary scientist John Spencer told CNN.

Amazingly, the height makes it more likely that there is water ice on Pluto. Nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and methane ice have all been detected on the dwarf planet, with the latest infrared photo revealing an abundance of the latter:

First Images of Pluto's Surface Reveal Water Ice Mountains

But the icy mountains are likely too tall to be made of any type of ice other than water. "You can't make mountains out of that stuff. It's too soft," said Spencer.

Opening quote
"The steep topography means that the bedrock that makes those mountains must be made of H2O -- of water ice," said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern. "We can be very sure that the water is there in great abundance."
Closing quote


The mountains also revealed that the surface of Pluto is much younger, and therefore dynamic, than we previously thought. The mountains likely formed only 100 million years ago or so, while astronomers estimate that our solar system, Pluto included, is approximately 4.56 billion years old. "This is one of the youngest surfaces we've ever seen in the solar system," said Jeff Moore of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team in a NASA statement.

As a result, the New Horizons team concluded that Pluto's surface may still be geologically active. "This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds," said Spencer
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